MARAWI– As United States special forces near their third week in Marawi, a city on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, observers say their participation in the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ battle to reclaim the city from the ISIS (Daesh)-linked Maute group was also aimed at reinforcing more than a century of U.S. control over the Philippines, which was its colony from 1899 until 1946.
“The U.S. seeks to consolidate and maintain the Philippines as its semi-colony, wherein it can avail itself of cheap raw materials (minerals, oil, natural gas), a cheap labor force, a dumping ground for its surplus US products, as well as protect its billions in investments in corporate agribusiness, military production and even healthcare, education, and public utilities such as telecommunications and energy,” said Bernadette Ellorin, a grassroots human rights activist and chairperson of BAYAN-USA, an alliance of U.S.-based progressive Filipino organizations.
The island is also the site of enduring conflicts between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the indigenous Lumad and Moro peoples, as well as the leftist New People’s Army.
Peace talks between the GRP and the Moro National Liberation Front, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the leftist National Democratic Front of the Philippines have stretched on for decades. But they quickly disappeared from headlines when Maute seized Marawi on May 23, after an attempt by the GRP to arrest the leader of another Daesh affiliate, the Abu Sayyaf group.
But many fear that the goal of the U.S.’ current intervention is to strengthen the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in their bid to repress these popular movements, as well as Maute and Abu Sayyaf.
“The U.S. objective in Marawi and in Mindanao is to go after and crush the revolutionary armed movement in the region including the Bangsamoro struggle for self-determination, rebrand the [Communist Party of the Philippines]-NPA as terrorists to the international community, and derail the peace process that was resumed under the Duterte administration,” Ellorin said.
Philippine military “…the most reactionary and pro-U.S. government institution…”
The GRP, led by President Rodrigo Duterte, did not invite the U.S. presence in Marawi. In fact, Duterte had ejected U.S. special forces from the same region nine months earlier. Their return apparently came at the invitation of the AFP.
Speaking at a press conference in the city of Cagayan de Oro on June 12 – one day after U.S. participation in the battle began – Duterte said he had “never approached America” for assistance and “not aware of that until they arrived,” adding “our soldiers are pro-American, that I cannot deny.”
The AFP’s founding by the U.S., as well as the decades of training and other assistance it has received from America, make it uniquely pro-American in a country where Duterte’s anti-U.S. broadsides have won broad public approval.
“The AFP is the most reactionary and pro-U.S. government institution in the Philippines,” Ellorin said.
“It was established in the early 20th century during the U.S. colonial period by the U.S. colonial government as the Philippine Constabulary, whose purpose was and remains to maintain U.S. control over the country and suppress anti-colonial rebellion.”
Many are worried about the fresh support that the AFP is receiving from the U.S., as well as its apparent ability to create its own foreign policy independent of the GRP.
“U.S. intervention has emboldened a Philippine military that is notorious for its human rights record,” said human rights attorney Azadeh Shahshahani, a member of the global council of the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines.
“The aerial bombing is hurting civilians more than Maute, and we have also heard reports from a humanitarian fact-finding mission that civilians were hurt by artillery shelling directly from a military camp occupied by the U.S.,” Shahshahani said.
Human rights violations abound amid U.S. intervention
Before the Marawi crisis erupted, years of U.S. involvement had already taken a grisly toll in Mindanao and across the Philippines, according to the country’s human rights advocates.
“U.S. intervention through military and political means on the affairs of Mindanao and the Philippines has resulted in countless violations of human and people’s rights such as massacres, torture and other grave crimes especially against the Moro peoples, to blatant disregard of the country’s sovereignty and patrimony, and to the worsening of social injustices and discrimination against Moro and Lumad peoples,” said Cristina Palabay, secretary general of the KARAPATAN Alliance for the Advancement of People’s Rights.
In Marawi, she added, “Human rights violations have been committed with graver impunity especially with the continuing implementation of the U.S.-driven counterinsurgency program, all-out war declaration against the people, the anti-poor war on drugs and martial law declaration in Mindanao.”
These abuses fit an established historic pattern of the U.S. and its allies using anti-terror rhetoric to justify their repression of popular struggles, regardless of the human toll, according to Reverend Michael Yoshii, a global council member of the International Council on Human Rights in the Philippines
“In the case of the Philippines, this has led to hundreds of extrajudicial killings targeting human rights advocates seeking social change in the country,” he said.
“The war on terror continues to be a nebulous reality that needs to be reigned in as innocent civilians like those in Marawi have become collateral damage in these campaigns.”
U.S. neocolonialism unlikely to end anytime soon in the Philippines
Shahshahani added that U.S. involvement in the Philippines occurs across multiple levels, with various strategies but identical goals.
“U.S. intervention takes place in the economic, political, social, and cultural spheres in the Philippines and perpetuates the country’s deep-seated social and economic crisis that is the root of chronic social unrest in the country,” she said.
“The Filipino people have suffered the brunt of this military presence, including sexual violence against women and children, forced evacuation of communities in areas designated for military exercises and operations, injuries and killings of civilians, and destruction of the environment.”
With U.S. forces showing no signs of leaving Marawi anytime soon, their presence raises several questions about the future. One is the effect that an enhanced U.S. role could have on peace talks between the GRP and leftist or Moro groups.
Another is the consequence of a possible power grab by the military of a democratic country in cooperation with a foreign superpower.
“This current situation demonstrates how divided the ruling classes are within the current administration of Rodrigo Duterte,” Ellorin said, adding that it “indicates intentions of the U.S. and its loyalists in the AFP to destabilize the Duterte administration if it does not uphold the traditional status quo of U.S. neocolonial politics in the Philippines.”